- Accessories are key for a programme aimed at building strength and muscle
- Accessories are particularly useful for compound movements to improve all aspects
- Accessory movements are often something that is neglected or performed lazily
- A lot of accessories are made too different from the main lift
- This article outlines some useful and effective accessories for the squat, bench and deadlift
Accessories – A Quick Breakdown
Accessory movements are an essential part of a programme when the goals are to build muscle or strength, or a combination of the two. They add the extra stimulus and training volume needed to build muscle and improve compound lifts that leads to strength gain.
Accessories are particularly useful and applicable when it comes to the big three movements (and the three lifts in powerlifting) as they can be used to address individual weaknesses and improve certain parts of each lift. Improving one part of the lift is bound to help the whole lift and throughout this process there is inevitably going to be an improvement in technique and increase in proficiency due to the lighter load being used.
For some reason, accessory movements are often neglected from a training programme or, if they do find their way in, are neglected or performed lazily due to (generally) the lighter load being used, or difficulty of the movement.
Ironically combined with this, due to the variety of accessory movements that there are, it is not uncommon to see some that stray so far from the main lifts that they are not even worth including. Not only does this make things far too complicated and variable-dependent, it also takes away from the main point of accessories. Individually customised programming is one thing, but sometimes the bread and butter movements are the most effective.
Therefore, below are TWO accessories for the squat, bench and deadlift which can be applied to most training programmes and do not require specialist equipment to be performed.
How: perform a regular squat and come to a stop in the hole, whilst staying in control of the weight, which will create the movement to “pause”. Remaining braced and tight, power out of the hole (without using momentum or bouncing) with the emphasis to maintain posture back to the start position.
Why: The pause squat by nature requires a massive amount of control and emphasis on tightness and posture, whilst also training a common weak point of the squat which is just out of the hole. Furthermore, due to the extra time under tension (TUT) and having no stretch reflex within the movement, it provides a different stimulus to regular squats which may be a useful add-on to training but also a tool for hypertrophy. It is also a mechanically disadvantageous movement making it highly effective (bang for your buck so to speak) and offers potential to build more muscle.
How: the tempo squat requires a slow and controlled descent (ideally 3-5 seconds) until right before or into the bottom position, where the stretch reflex can be used and the focus then becomes on an explosive return to the start position.
Why: The tempo squat has some different benefits to the pause squat and can require much lighter loads to those not used to such a slow descent or who have technique issues. It is an accessory that cannot be cheated and will identify imbalances and other issues very quickly, which makes it a very good movement to increase proficiency at the squat.
Close grip bench
How: take a closer grip than usual (there is no need for an excessively close grip, it only presents risk of extra joint strain and poor pressing) and bench press as normal, aiming to keep the wrists stacked over the elbow.
Why: The close grip bench is a staple accessory for bench press training for a few reasons. Firstly, it is a sustainable grip width to be able to handle a lot of volume in, as it does not put excessive strain on the pecs or shoulders. Alongside this, it builds up the primary movers (pecs, shoulders and triceps) very well, especially triceps due to the extended range of motion. Lastly, the close grip bench is – generally – a mechanically disadvantageous position, therefore being stronger at close grip usually translates to a stronger wider grip bench. More load = more muscle and more load = strength gains.
How: this accessory is regular bench pressing with a slow and controlled eccentric (downward part of the movement), aiming to maintain tension. Once the bar touches the chest, there can either be a pause to make the movement even more challenging, or an explosive touch and go press back to the start position.
Why: Much like the tempo squat, the tempo bench provides benefit for the same reasons. Key drivers of muscle gain are mechanical tension and muscle damage and this accessory emphasizes both due to the time under tension and emphasis on controlling the load throughout the eccentric portion. Furthermore – specifically for strength – this accessory requires a lighter load, presenting a chance for focus on technique and bar speed which are two massive aspects of lifting optimally.
How: the paused deadlift requires a short pause (or extended which is harder) about 1-3 inches from the ground after initially breaking the bar off the floor followed by a powerful lockout straight from the paused position.
Why: This accessory reinforces maintaining positioning and tightness from the floor in the deadlift which is a common weakness. By nature, the movement has you keeping the bar as close as possible, which will improve efficiency of a deadlift. Furthermore, it builds a strong lockout as there is a need to get the hips through after the pause has been completed. Lastly, the paused deadlift is a great back builder, as it requires so much back tightness to complete but also involves what is essentially an isometric hold via the pause. Building the common weaker point in a deadlift (that being strength and positioning around mid-shin), the lift will increase massively as will proficiency.
Barbell row (deadlift specific)
How: this accessory can be done in different ways. The first is to use more of a Pendlay row style, where the weight rests on the floor between each rep to cut out momentum, before a powerful row into the waist using some momentum if needed. The second is to deadlift the weight up and set up into a hip hinge, letting the weight drop close to the body before rowing to waist/stomach and letting it return to knee/mid-shin area. Body angle for both styles should be bent over, preferably parallel or just above.
Why: The deadlift is a posterior chain dominant movement and therefore using an exercise that specifically builds the posterior chain will always help when trying to make deadlift progress. Combined with this, a common weakness is lack of back strength and this leads to form breakdown when it comes to heavier lifting; strengthening the back in this way will provide a lot of benefit. In terms of gaining muscle, heavy barbell rows are one of the best back builders when done alongside other exercises, as it stimulates so much muscle at one time. Find out more here.
I am not stating that these are the best accessories to do nor am I trying to present groundbreaking knowledge; these accessories have been around for a very long time however it is always useful to know a variety of them in depth, as variations are key for progress and may address individual weaknesses more than the main lifts. In addition, these accessories are simple barbell movements that do not require specialist equipment.
I’d recommend sticking to an accessory for a reasonable amount of time, as much like any other movement it requires a bit of time and practice to reap the rewards from it.
Do not neglect the importance of your accessory movements when aiming to get bigger and/or stronger!
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